Anticipating ecological tipping points

  • Scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, intend to use past research and case studies of ecological tipping points to develop a set of early-warning indicators to predict, and hopefully prevent, delicate ecosystems from collapsing.
  • Examples of detrimental tipping points in marine settings are plenty, one of the most well known being harvesting of otters for their fur in California, which resulted in a spike in the urchin population leading to the destruction of kelp forests that provided important shelter for fish and invertebrates. Once set in motion, the cascade effect can be rapid.
  • The anticipated advance indicators of threshold shifts to come out of the study are likely to include water quality, rates of disease and a decline in numbers of particular species.
  • The University of Southampton is using a different approach to work on the same problem. Scientists are applying mathematical modelling to real life situations to investigate ecosystem ‘flickers’ prior to dramatic ecosystem fluctuations. Which approach is best is currently unknown.

Implications and next steps: It is hoped that these studies will reveal early warning indicators that can be translated to terrestrial systems too, and may provide a set of guidelines that can help to influence monitoring and preventative measures.

Terra Daily:, Terra Daily:, October workshops, EcoHealth:

About annaarathe

Research fellow, horizon scanning
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